After Her by Joyce Maynard
Publisher: William Morris
Published: August 20, 2013
Rating: 5 out of 5
Book Summary: It's the summer of 1979, and a dry, hot, northern California school vacation stretches ahead for Rachel and her younger sister Patty-the daughters a larger-than-life, irresistibly handsome and chronically unfaithful detective father who loves to make women happy, and the mother whose heart he broke.
Left to their own devices, the inseparable sisters spend their days studying record jackets, concocting elaborate fantasies about the life of the mysterious neighbor who moves in down the street, and playing dangerous games on the mountain that rises up behind their house.
When young women start showing up dead on the mountain, the girls' father is charged with finding the man responsible, known as The Sunset Strangler. Seeing her father's life slowly unravel when he fails to stop the murders, Rachel embarks on her most dangerous game yet: setting herself up as bait to catch the killer, with consequences that will destroy her father's career and alter the lives of everyone she loves.
It is not until thirty years later that Rachel, who has never given up hope of vindicating her father, finally smokes out the killer, bringing her back to the territory of her childhood, and uncovering a long-buried family secret.
As with her novel, Labor Day, Maynard's newest work is part thriller, part love story, Loosely inspired by the Trailside Killer case that terrorized Marin County in the late seventies, her tale delves deep into the alternately thrilling and terrifying landscape of a young girl's first explorations of adult sexuality and the loss of innocence, the bond between sisters-and into a daughter's tender but damaged relationship with her father, and what it is to finally trust a man.
My Thoughts: I just loved this book. It’s heart-warming and heart-breaking. It’s humorous and suspenseful as themes of youth and innocence, love, loss and family relationships course through the pages of this part coming-of-age, part mystery story.
Told in the voice of 13-year old Rachel, After Her is set in Northern California, Marin County just outside San Francisco. Rachel lives with her younger sister, Patty and their mother. Rachel and Patty are on their own most of the time since their mother suffers from depression and spends most days in her bedroom reading library books. Their father no longer lives with them, a fact that saddens both girls. They love and adore their father, Anthony Torricelli, a detective with Marin Homicide Division, and are immensely proud of him. Joyce Maynard does an amazing job of bringing these three very different characters to life. It was easy to imagine Office Torricelli as a beat cop, then later as a revered homicide detective, especially through the stories Rachel proudly relays. My favorite scenes are the times he spends with Rachel and Patty and Rachel talking about being with him. He may love his job and spend a lot of time away from his girls, but there is no doubt he loves them.
Rachel is like many 13-year old girls: anxious to be an adult, excited about the changes her body will go through and impatient for it to happen. She wants to be one of the popular kids at school yet she loves spending her free time with Patty. She and Patty, left to amuse themselves, use their imaginations and creative abilities to concoct games and adventures. Early in the novel they are inseparable. Their love and dependence on each other is the ideal of sisterhood. Rachel and Patty's relationship is one all sisters hope to have.
Into this quiet idyll comes the Sunset Strangler who is killing young women on Mountain Tamalpais, the mountain behind Rachel’s home. She and Patty spend a lot of time there and know many of its secrets. Maynard describes the mountain in such detail we can see it there in the distance and easily imagine Rachel and Patty hiding in trees or walking its trails. Their dad forbids them to play on the mountain anymore but the lure of the forbidden is too great and the mountain is such an indelible part of their lives, Rachel and Patty cannot stay away. I think it’s interesting to note the author’s ability to mix reality and fiction. For example, not only is Mt. Tamalpais real, but the Sunset Strangler in the book is loosely based on the real life Trailside Killer case in Marin County.
Rachel devises a plan whereby she and Patty can discover and find the killer. Then they’ll give the solved case to their dad making him proud and showing him how much they love him. At the same time Rachel discovers that information about the specific, individual killings gives her an “in” with the popular crowd. She’s soon spending afternoons at the home of the most popular girl, discussing the murders, boys and makeup. Rachel is also set up with a popular boy and experiences her first kiss and more. She’s confused and torn between being popular but disliking the way the popular kids spend their time and being home with Patty having fun. But for a while the lure of popularity is too strong. Although Patty doesn’t understand why Rachel wants to spend time with these kids, she knows it’s something Rachel has to do. Patty never gets angry at Rachel but gives her the space she needs to discover whatever it is she’s searching for because that’s the kind of bond they have. It’s so sweet.
Maynard’s writing is the perfect style for the story. In Rachel she’s created a wonderfully balanced character. She’s the model of girlhood innocence on the cusp of adulthood, both excited for and fearful of growing up. Rachel has a deep awareness of how harsh the world can be because of her father, a good but flawed man, his work and the ubiquitous media stories about death. I also found the ending very satisfactory. Not open ended, it goes beyond just the “end of the case”. Maynard avoids sappiness or morbidity, finding a balance that leaves the reader not feeling short changed but with the feeling of having had a full experience. What I seem to have difficulty understanding are the activities of the kids at such young ages. That kind of sexual experimentation didn’t happen with me and my peers at such a young age. If this is what Maynard turned up in her research, then I worry for this and future generations.
This was my first experience reading a book by Joyce Maynard. I am already looking forward to the next book of hers I read. Hopefully Labor Day!